Climate and Meningitis in Africa – A Google Earth Tour

The International Research Institute for Climate and Society and Google are offering a guided tour of Africa to teach you about the relationship between climate and deadly meningitis outbreaks there. No need to pack your bags, though: it’s a virtual tour, one you can run on Google Earth from your living room.

The climate and meningitis tour is one of a number that Google has launched for the Conference Of the Parties in Copenhagen, Denmark, known as COP15. Al Gore gives the introductory tour, called “Confronting Climate Change”. Google.org will be also hosting a briefing about the tours at the Climate Change Kiosk in Copenhagen’s Bella Center on December 10, 11 a.m.

Through the Google Earth application, users can explore the potential impacts of climate change and some the solutions for managing it.

“The IRI tour integrates real climate data, beautiful imagery and the collaborative narration of a host of climate and health experts,” says Kiersten Jennings Chou, who worked with IRI staff and Google to create the tour. “It is a powerful tool to allow people around the world to visualize the impact of this devastating disease,” she says. Jennings Chou is a former eighth-grade science teacher and recent graduate of Columbia University’s Masters Program in Climate and Society.

Users can download the Google Earth application here (please check system requirements). Then they can download the IRI tour file and play it from within Google Earth. Narrated by IRI scientist Judy Omumbo, the IRI tour takes users across Africa, discussing the impacts of meningitis outbreaks and the role that climate plays in their occurrence. Users will be able to pause the tour at any time, turn on a variety of layers such as roads and placemarks, and zoom in on any spot along the way.

Alternatively, users can watch a recorded video of the tour embedded on this page or on YouTube without having to install Google Earth, but will lose the interactivity.

Meningitis outbreaks occur yearly in 25 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, primarily in the ‘Meningitis Belt’, which stretches from Senegal to Ethiopia. They place undue strain on the overtaxed health systems of these countries. Every few years, the outbreaks rise to epidemic proportions that have a devastating impact, especially on impoverished communities. In 2009, for example, there have been more than 55,000 cases in northern Nigeria and nearly 14,000 in neighboring Niger, according to the World Health Organization.

The epidemic form of the disease is caused by bacteria that attack the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis kills approximately one in ten of its victims, and leaves many survivors with lifelong disabilities. Despite these tragic statistics, the mechanisms that drive the dynamics of this dry-season disease are still not completely understood. Meningitis can be prevented through vaccination, but in order for the vaccine to be effective, it must be given before outbreaks occur. Researchers at IRI are using their expertise in health and climate forecasting and modeling to try to help decision-makers stay one step ahead of the outbreaks. They are providing scientific and practical support to the Meningitis Environmental Risk Information Technologies (MERIT) project.

“Bacterial meningitis is a devastating climate-sensitive disease, and the climate community has something to contribute toward its control,” says Madeleine Thomson, who is the chair of IRI’s Africa Program and who sits on the MERIT steering committee. “MERIT is a collaborative effort between the health and climate community designed to serve decision-makers at the local level. The collaboration brings together a wide range of scientific and operational expertise and is supported by many institutions besides the IRI.” These include the World Health Organization, the World Meteorological Organization, Group on Earth Observations, the Health and Climate Foundation, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and, most significantly, the Meningitis Vaccine Project. The third international MERIT meeting recently took place in Niger, hosted by the African Centre for Meteorological Applications in Development and the Centre de Recherche M├ędicale et Sanitaire. Please visit the MERIT home page for the latest information.

The Google Earth tour references some of this important work. It also pulls in climate data from the IRI’s Climate Data Library, a powerful and freely accessible collection of online tools which allows users to view, analyze and download more than 400 climate-related data sets through a standard web browser.

“Connecting Google Earth to the Data Library provides users with seamless access to climate data,” says Data Library manager, Benno Blumenthal, “Users can request portions of a dataset or perform analyses with the data, and have those results transferred to Google Earth with a simple click.”

The tour is the latest in a number of collaborations between the IRI and both Google and its philanthropic arm, Google.org. One project is improving the use of forecasts, rainfall data and other climate information in East Africa, and building stronger connections between weather, climate and health specialists so they can better predict and prevent outbreaks of infectious diseases. Another project, led by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, aims to use weather forecasting to predict delays in the end of the meningitis season in West Africa and thereby help identify populations in most need of vaccination.

To explore Climate and Health in Africa, download the tour into Google Earth